Senior outside linebacker Alex Funches gathered his position group after Cal football’s final day of fall camp and asked his teammates a simple question. If they were playing a game next week, would they be ready? The answer, a consensus — no.
“We didn’t play to the standard that we’re trying to uphold,” Funches said.
Funches, a leader among the outside linebackers and a key piece to Cal’s defensive scheme, will be suiting up for his “last first game” Sept. 1 against UNC. The Bears have 13 days to tighten up their game on both sides of the ball before the Tar Heels visit California Memorial Stadium, eager to avenge last year’s loss.
The conclusion of two weeks of long, hard work was a scrimmage that pitted Cal’s defense against its offense. Oftentimes, the offense carried all the momentum and got the best of the defenders, who didn’t do a great job of tackling and found themselves committing eye violations.
“It’s a teaching moment,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “Our guys need to understand where they are — it’s reality check — and what we’ve got to do before our first game. Thankfully, we’ve got two more weeks. If we’d have played today, you know we would not have played well.”
Cal’s defense, which looked solid throughout the majority of camp, let a culmination of things get to it throughout Saturday’s session. Personalities start to conflict after constant battles, and fatigue sets in — but hundreds of other schools are fighting the same fight. The day saw a plethora of teachable moments, but only time will tell if the Bears can transition from teaching to executing.
Both Funches and redshirt senior inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk earned themselves a mix of tackles and sacks on the day, and junior inside linebacker Evan Weaver stepped up to the other inside linebacker position. Normally redshirt junior inside linebacker Gerran Brown would be lined up next to Kunaszyk, but Brown did not suit up, as his status is day-to-day.
“We have guys playing hard, but we’re not accountable enough to each other in playing sound,” DeRuyter said.
The offense had a much more formidable outing, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon McIlwain having himself a day under center — including playing live and getting tackled in a blue offensive jersey, whereas the other quarterbacks donned their yellow “do-not-tackle-me” jerseys.
Additionally, redshirt senior wide receiver Vic Wharton III established himself as an experienced veteran and favorite target of redshirt junior quarterback Ross Bowers. Elsewhere, redshirt junior wide receiver Kanawai Noa made it clear he is a returning weapon for Cal, showcasing his abilities with an over-the-head touchdown catch over defender junior cornerback Traveon Beck.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Moe Ways recorded a touchdown on the day as well, but also dropped the ball and appeared to miscommunicate with the quarterbacks in several instances. Junior wide receiver Jordan Duncan, who is a top receiver option for Cal, had a relatively quiet day — neither Ways nor Duncan received too many looks, as the run game played a pivotal role for the offense.
“Championship winning teams have to have an established run game, in my opinion,” said running backs coach Burl Toler III. “It has to do with the quarterback taking charge, a lot of it has to do with the offensive line being physical. … But all those things open up the pass, with coach (Beau) Baldwin cooking it up in the kitchen.”
There is no doubt that redshirt senior running back Patrick Laird will own a hefty number of the snaps, but what Toler can cook up himself will be a sight to see. From freshman running back Christopher Brown Jr. — a powerful, downhill runner — to speedy junior running back Marcel Dancy, every back brings something different to the table. Toler can assure fans, however, that too much depth is never a bad thing.
It is without question that the Bears are leaps and bounds past where they were in their training this time last year. Head coach Justin Wilcox has done an impressive job shaping up his players and getting his coaches to believe in winning and practicing the right way.
Fourteen fall camp days down. That’s a wrap. Now the Bears will begin to get in game shape as they continue their training and countdown to Sept. 1.